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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Concert Review: The Captain of Quirk

The New York Philharmonic celebrates Carl Nielsen's 150th.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
He's 150! Birthday boy Carl Nielsen was féted Monday night by the New York Philharmonic.
Photo from
Sometimes the best birthday parties are the intimate ones. On Monday night, members of the New York Philharmonic gathered at SubCulture, the basement performance space on Bleecker Street, to celebrate the 150th birthday of Danish composer Carl Nielsen. The occasion also marked the conclusion of The Nielsen Project, music director Alan Gilbert's plan to record and release most of the composer's major orchestral works on the Da Capo label.

Carl Nielsen is Denmark's most famous contribution to the musical arts. A fearless maverick with a strict sense of classical style that is often at odds with his music's wry wit and desire to break new ground, he is remembered today for six symphonies, a Clarinet Concerto of considerable difficulty and melodic invention, and the opera Maskerade, a brilliant comedy of manners that would be in the standard repertory if it didn't require its interpreters to sing in Danish.

Tonight, the refitted halls of SubCulture were decked with bunches of party balloons, white ones with "I  NIELSEN" printed on them in black and red. A special (and potent) "Nielsen Cocktail" (lemon liqueur, (possibly Caravella) Prosecco, sugar, muddled mint, lime, ice) was served. A buffet (meatballs, salmon and "Espansiva" crab balls was available to the assembled. Danish ambassador Jarls Frijs-Madsen  made some short remarks, and then it was time for an extraordinary performance.

Five of the Philharmonic players stepped onto the little stage: principal horn Philip Myers, bassoonist Judith LeClair, clarinetist Anthony McGill, oboist Liang Wang and flautist Robert Langevin. This was the first time that they played together as a quintet, since Mr. McGill is a relative newcomer to the orchestra's ranks. Their task: to play Nielsen's charming, autumnal Wind Quintet, itself the product of the composer's long and fruitful relationship with the winds and horns of the Royal Copenhagen Orchestra.

The Quintet is challenging, sharing the rhythmic and melodic quirks that pepper Nielsen's final creative period. Here, the robust horn of Mr. Myers duelled cheerfully with the two high winds, with Mr. Langevin and Mr. Wang using their respective techniques to sound eerily alike at times. The same trick of the ear was played by Ms. LeClair, whose bassoon part hid with the clarinet and occasionally traded placed with the horns.

The instrumentation breaks into little duos and trios, with the grouped voices answering each other in dialogue across a gulf in the middle. Eventually, the melodic lines cohere, intertwine and finally sound in concert, with the whole group playing in tutti before fracturing again. The final movement is a dazzling set of variations, allowing each player the solo spotlight before the whole comes together for a final cadence.

New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert discusses his enthusiasm for the 
music of Carl Nielsen in this 2012 clip. 

Following a short interview with Mr. Gilbert (conducted by WWFM The Classical Network;s David Osenberg) the Nightingale String Quartet took the stage. These four Danish players took on the early Nielsen String Quartet in G Minor, a relatively unknown work. This early Quartet (it is Op. 13 on the composer's catalogue) shows Nielsen working out the influence of both Brahms and Wagner and developing a style of his own. Shot through with humor, its complex, stirring opening movement (shot through with Brahmsian melancholy) yields to a somber slow movement that is interrupted by a playful fast section.

Nielsen quotes the rat-a-tat Nibelung theme from Das Rheingold in its scherzo, sounding as if the dwarves had put down their rock hammers to have a dance party. The finale is built around what sounds like a Scandinavian folk tune, putting the violins in the lead and working the simple theme through another tortuous set of variations. Finally, the hammering theme returns in the lower strings, providing the engine that brings this last movement to its rhythmic, almost ecstatic climax. Finally, Mr. Osenberg returned to lead the assembled in a slighty ragged rendition of "Happy Birthday to You." Your critic sang in a rich baritone, although his own last note came in completely flat.

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